What’s the point of ICBF if we’ve to go back to genetics of 20 years ago?
bulls slaughtered in Ireland had risen every year since 2002, from just under 40,000 up to a high of 209,000 in 2012. This represented almost 30pc of the overall male kill.
The number of young bulls slaughtered last year fell by over 10pc and the kill contracted sharply during December and January.
For the past few years, the factories have insisted that they wanted these young bulls to be closer to 16 months instead of 18 months. It was not easy, but farmers adapted. Now we are being told that they also need to be less than 380kg.
To the outside eye, that change from 16 months and 380kg may not look all that different to 18 months and 400kg up. But dig and little deeper and it’s a different story.
We sold some young continental bulls around Christmas. They were under 16 months and weighed 407kg with just enough fat cover.
These animals are not bred to be finished at low weights. Any kind of a setback and it won’t work.
The market is currently telling us to do one of two things. Either we should be castrating all our males and go back to finishing them as steers.
Or we should completely change what we produce and move to an earlier maturing animal. This would take at least three-and-a-half years to complete.
The logistics, economics and the personal cost of disposing a herd that has taken a lifetime to build is one thing.
But what is to say that the demand will not be for something different in the future?
What are the chances that the industry will change more in the next 40 months than it has in the past 12?
That is the kernel of the problem. It is not that the spec has changed again - it’s that it is always changing. The factories always want what we don’t have. As soon as we do have it, they no longer want it.
As bull beef gets older, the view is that it becomes less appealing to the consumer. But i f t he quality of 18-month bull beef was not a problem a year ago, up until the industry was hit with the horsemeat scandal, why is it now? Elsewhere in Europe, 18 months is not an issue.
This is where the supermarkets come into the equation, especially those in Britain, which currently accounts for more than 50pc of our exports. They apparently want bulls under 16 months, but what is sacrosanct about this figure?
Does spec really matter or is it just an artificial tool, perhaps as a display of power that controls price? Could the next move be an age limit of 14 months or even 12? And will the weight limit continue to drop?
I would suggest that there is something immoral in all of this.
The population of the world is growing and, with it, the demand for food and the demand for meat. Producing young bulls at 16 months and 380kg may be attainable, but is it sustainable?
Surely the target should be trying to produce more from less rather than less from more? While the Minister of Agriculture has finally moved to meet the processors, this has become a broader political issue in which he must have a role.
There are signs that this bottleneck is already starting to clear. But when it does, many farmers will be left stomaching hefty losses.
What then f or
Ir i s h
beef production? There are a lot of questions to be answered.
We have always had a policy of culling the worst five cows in the herd on the basis of performance. Now we wonder whether we shouldn’t have been culling the best five.
Apologies to traditional breeders because I know this is an over-simplification.
But where now for ICBF and what’s the point of its work if we have to go back to the genetics of 20 years ago?
What about Ireland’s Origin Green image which is built on a low-input grass-based system?
And how does this fit in with the targets of Food Harvest 2020? If conventional beef farming is wiped out, will this gap be filled by the likes of the crossbred Holstein bulls being sold last week for a fiver?
It was reported in these pages last week that cattle born in the South are being heavily discounted when offered for sale in Northern Ireland.
How, in a ‘free’ market, can this be allowed to happen? Another one for the Minister.
We all know the names of the Irish meat plant bosses. Do any of us know the names of the bosses of the main British supermarket chains, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons or Sainsbury’s?
Do any of them have the courage and the wisdom to stand up and say they will take meat from young bulls aged up to 18 months? Would they talk to farmers? Maybe a better bet would be to see if they would refuse to talk to our Minister for Agriculture.